Monday, September 6, 2010

Old Unreliable

I've always known my father was not someone upon whom I could rely. There are other children of hoarders who, I know, have experienced this with their own parents. But we sometimes still hope that, maybe, this one time... This vignette is from the sequel to Nice Children Stolen from Car; I call it:




Old Unreliable


My father can always be counted on for one thing, and that is to let me down. It has been that way all my life. He's been a no-show, no-help, no-interest kind of dad ever since I can remember.
So why did I forget?
Maybe it's because I don't live with my parents anymore. After graduating from college, I moved into my own tiny place, not much more than an attic, but clean and clutter-free, the way I've always wanted to live. I'm lucky that my job isn't far from my new home, but I don't have a car, so it feels farther than it actually is. Public transportation isn't available where I live, so I find myself commuting by bicycle in all kinds of weather. I'm in great shape and a friend of the environment... and I hate it.
I really want a car. But first I need my driver's license, something I've never had the time or money to get before. Now that I'm out of school and working full time, I save and save until at last I can afford to pay for driver's education. Most of my fellow classmates, of course, are still in high school; I feel like the kid who stayed back too many times: old and not very bright.
The classes seem to take forever, but at last I'm done, and ready to go for my license. If I use the driver education car for my road test, the instructor must be present, and it will be very expensive. so I reluctantly ask my father if he will drive me to the motor vehicle department instead. To my great surprise, not only does he agree, but a few days before the appointment, he drops off the car we will take together to the test. It's a Buick Century, and it comes from the collection of cars littering my father's front lawn, all in various degrees of disrepair and driveability. He assures me, however, that this one runs quite well. It's a big boat of a vehicle, far larger than anything I've driven in my classes. It also has power steering, which my driver's ed car does not. My father has hinted that he may even let me borrow the car for a while, provided I get my license, of course, until I have something else to drive. It is so rare to receive any kind of help from my father, I jump at his offer.
The big day finally arrives. My appointment is at one; my father, however, has been told that it is at eleven. He is chronically late; over the years, we kids have learned to resort to lies and trickery to ensure our punctuality. The very latest my father and I can leave my apartment and still reach the motor vehicle department is twelve-thirty. My white lie has given me what I hope is a nice security blanket of time.
When ten-thirty comes and goes with no sign of my father, I am not surprised. But when eleven, eleven-thirty and twelve do the same, I begin to get nervous. I call my parents' house; no answer. I pace the floor, looking out the window, mentally kicking myself for believing that, just this once, my father would be there for me. I even try to arrange for another ride, but it's too late. None of my neighbors are home. My friends are either working or live too far to reach my apartment on time. So, when twelve-thirty arrives and my father does not, I have no choice but to take matters into my own hands: I hop in my borrowed Buick and drive my unlicensed self to my appointment.
The powering steering takes some getting used to, and my first few corners are quite dramatic. But I manage, despite the size and unfamiliarity of the vehicle, to make it to the motor vehicle department without running anyone over or getting stopped by the police. I slowly, carefully, pull my monster of a car into the largest space I can find. An elderly woman is watching me from a window of the building; when I get inside, I find out she is the person with whom I have to fill out the paperwork for my license.
She hands me the forms I need to complete. "Didn't I just see you outside parking a car?"
I avoid her gaze, concentrating intently on the papers in front of me. "Maybe."
Her voice is shrill and stern. "You're not supposed to DRIVE here without a license!"
I look up, my eyes purposely innocent, my hands spread wide. "Well then, how was I supposed to get here?"
My question surprises her; she doesn't know quite how to answer.
"Well, you're here now," she grumbles. "All I can say is you'd better pass."
The examiner appears, ready to take me for my road test. A swarthy, surly man, he slumps into the passenger seat of the Buick with his clipboard and check-off list. I bite my lip, and nervously back The Boat out of its parking spot. Perfectly.
It is the last perfect thing I do.
Because of my issue with the power steering, I take turns too wide, too fast. I forget to come to a full stop at the stop sign. My 3-point turn is lousy. I can't parallel park to save my life.
The examiner's face is grim. He is wordless, except when he barks, "Watch out!!" The rest of the time he spends jabbing at his check-off list with his pencil, his mouth twisted with annoyance.
I am flunking my road test.
I cast a quick, sidelong glance at the examiner, and my eyes happen to fall on his name tag.
Rodriguez.
Suddenly, an idea occurs to me, one born of sheer desperation. The next time he yells, "Watch out!" I ask, in what I hope sounds like a casual, conversational tone:
"Is that a Spanish accent I detect?"
Rodriguez looks at me like I have lost my mind.
"Why?" he growls.
I immediately launch into rapid Spanish, sharing with him the sad story of my life. I leave out the parts about my no-show father and his hoarding, of course, but I tell him other things: how I grew up poor and worked hard to put myself through school, how I've had to wait until this late age to get my license because there was never enough money to do so, how I studied Spanish for eight years, both in high school and college, and that I use it now in my work with the disabled. How I love my job, but it is kind of far from where I live and I'm tired of riding there on my bicycle, especially in the rain.
Rodriguez continues to look at me without speaking. I wrap up my tale of woe just as we return to the motor vehicle department. He gets out of the car, but before he closes the door, he leans in and says curtly, "You pass," adding in Spanish: "Some people have all the luck."
There has probably never been a more relieved person leaving the parking lot of this particular motor vehicle office. I start driving carefully, but legally, back to my apartment. About halfway there, I notice a strange smell which seems to be coming from the back of the Buick. I turn around cautiously to find out what it might be. What I see there causes me to pull over immediately and fling myself out of the car.
The entire back seat of the vehicle loaned to me by my unreliable father, the one he has assured me runs just fine, has burst into flames.

Thanks, Dad.
 
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